Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
It’s all going wrong for Morrison

No one more than Scott Morrison will be sweating on the prospect of other capital cities going into lockdown again after Sydney. The survival of his government – long thought to be guaranteed by the politics of the pandemic – has now become hostage to the obvious failures in how Covid-19 has been handled.

The targets for delivering a safe pathway out of the life-threatening contagion have long been abandoned, replaced by horizons that sound more like unrequited yearnings and phases of recovery without concrete date lines.

Murphy’s law seems to be in play: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. New polling emerged showing the government’s problem with women is deepening, coinciding with the release of an explosive book by former Liberal MP Julia Banks. Banks quit the party soon after the 2018 coup that toppled Malcolm Turnbull and brought Scott Morrison to the leadership. The issues of bullying and manipulation she raised only added to the siege mentality in the prime ministerial bunker.

Morrison’s inner circle is now convinced the Commonwealth government is a victim of hostile Labor premiers intent on shredding its credibility ahead of the upcoming federal election. But this paranoia is merely blinding them to the reality of their own failures, more often than not born of incompetence.

No one is a more convincing witness to this than the Liberal premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian. Where she could, Berejiklian has done her best to shield Morrison from his blunders. She refrained from criticising the prime minister’s unexpected advice on the AstraZeneca vaccine. Nor has she joined with Queensland, Western Australia or Victoria in demanding the Commonwealth step up and take full responsibility for purpose-built quarantine facilities.

But Berejiklian has no appetite to share the responsibility with Morrison for the critical failure of vaccine delivery. The most reluctant of all the premiers to lock down, she could no longer deliver Morrison his “gold standard” of Liberal superiority by keeping the economy of the nation’s biggest city completely open.

Berejiklian joins her fellow premiers in sheeting home the blame to Canberra. The new Delta strain – more infectious and more of an unknown – is too dangerous to ignore. At her news conferences during the week, Berejiklian repeated that the strain is “something we haven’t seen before and that is why it requires a different type of response”. She reminded increasingly rancorous news conferences that the supply of vaccines was out of her hands.

When she extended the lockdown for another week, Berejiklian again said “the vast majority of the population” would need to be vaccinated before life could get back to anything approaching normal. Morrison is now waiting on modelling from the Doherty Institute to put a figure on just how vast a majority is needed.

More is the pity then that Morrison’s confusing and conflicting signals on the one vaccine he has invested billions in – the locally manufactured AstraZeneca – has created understandable but self-defeating hesitancy in the population.

Reports on Sky News and other outlets began citing government sources who were critical of the health advice they were receiving from medical experts. They said it was extremely risk averse to suggest AstraZeneca was less safe than Pfizer or other mRNA vaccines for anyone under the age of 60. No doubt fuelling Morrison’s frustration was the success of AstraZeneca in Britain, where leading scientist Dame Sarah Gilbert received a standing ovation from the crowd at Wimbledon. One political staffer quipped that if it were an Australian crowd they would be throwing rocks at her.

Morrison’s decision to call in the military to sort out the vaccine rollout hasn’t provided him with the cover it was designed to. It’s one thing to send a general into war; it’s another not to give him any ammunition. Whether people will believe Lieutenant-General JJ Frewen over Morrison when he assures them he is “confident by October we will have a greater range of rollout for the vaccine” is open to question.

The latest Guardian Essential poll – similar to Newspoll the previous week – has picked up a decline in support for the government’s handling of the pandemic. But in Essential, taken a week later, the decline is more dramatic. Approval fell nine points in a month, from 53 per cent to 44 per cent. More people, 46 per cent, thought the Commonwealth wasn’t doing enough to protect them in the pandemic, as opposed to 37 per cent who thought it was. Seventy one per cent nominated quarantine as a Commonwealth responsibility. This latter message is one Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and the Labor premiers have been hammering.

Essential pollster Peter Lewis said the chickens were coming home to roost for Morrison. He said the prime minister’s “often contradictory guises and surface-level engagement” appeared to show a “brittleness to his support”.

Not to be forgotten is how slim Morrison’s hold on government is. He has a one-seat majority. Since the last election, tracking all the published opinion polls in two-party terms, neither the Morrison-led Coalition nor the Albanese-led Labor party has established political ascendancy. Simply put, at any time in the past two years an election result would have been too close to predict – as it still is.

Former Labor staffer and strategist Bruce Hawker says, “Morrison has given himself very little room for failure from hereon in.” He goes further, saying: “Morrison has started his slide and it’s hard to see how he can stop it.” The reason, in his mind, is simple: “Pfizer supplies are running out, voters know he’s stuffed up on quarantine and he can’t reopen the borders.”

Hawker, a spin doctor of some repute himself, says “spin-doctoring won’t cure his woes”.

Essentially, this pandemic affects everyone in the nation. Claims we are better off than everywhere else on Earth are hard to swallow when we are in prolonged lockdown or living under the threat of one being imposed without warning.

Yet in a sense the pandemic is only one half of the Morrison government’s problems at the moment. The other half is the proportion of the population who are female. The Resolve Strategic poll in The Sydney Morning Herald has found women swinging against the Morrison government in a way that threatens its survival at the election.

The government’s primary vote from women has fallen from 41 per cent to 37 per cent. As pollster Jim Reed points out: the situation for the government is so tight it can’t afford to afford to lose any vote share.

Quarterly analysis of the poll coincides with the continuing bad press the government is receiving for its handling of Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins’ allegation of rape in Parliament House and the controversial return of Barnaby Joyce as deputy prime minister. Unresolved allegations of sexual harassment, which Joyce denies, were cited by female Nationals as reason enough for him not to be returned.

In a lengthy interview on the ABC’s prime time 7.30, Julia Banks was every bit as sensational as in her book, Power Play. She told of a still serving cabinet minister running his hand up her thigh at a late night gathering in then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s office. She was shocked and disgusted at the “unwelcome sexual advance or inappropriate touching”. Banks says she will not name the minister for fear of retribution. It is highly unlikely that whoever it was will follow Christian Porter’s example and out himself to deny the allegation. She says the fact the incident happened in front of a room full of ministers and colleagues is symptomatic of an unaddressed toxic culture.

Banks reserves her most scathing comments for Scott Morrison himself. She accuses him of being like “menacing, controlling wallpaper”. For three months she says he tried to take control of the narrative – either directly, or through his staff and colleagues backgrounding against her.

Banks told an incredulous Laura Tingle that Morrison’s response was to drag her through “this sexist spectrum narrative” that went from her being a “weak, overemotional woman to the bully bitch”. Morrison’s office denies Banks’s description of events and their conversations. The prime minister, when he finally faced cameras on Thursday, walked away from a news conference before any issues other than the pandemic or the new veteran and Defence suicide royal commission could be raised.

Banks spoke of an angry Morrison, manipulating her to set up his version of how he was dealing with her unwelcome rebellion. When he could not buy or enforce her silence, she says, he sought to minimise her credibility by painting himself as a concerned mentor worried for the sanity and wellbeing of a vulnerable underling.

It only served to steel her resolve. Banks says her original plan was to sit quietly on the backbench and quit at the following election. Morrison’s responses prompted her to slam the door on the Liberals and sit on the crossbench. Ominously for the government and its tattered credentials with many women voters, Banks says the treatment of Brittany Higgins and former Australia Post chief Christine Holgate shows nothing has changed for the better.

Some Liberals console themselves with the thought that Banks’s revelations and book will not translate into seat losses. They believe the sort of women who would be most outraged are higher-income earners and better educated – and so already in safe seats. This could see margins trimmed, that’s all.

But others are less sanguine, fearing that for the same reason these very seats have been made more vulnerable to socially progressive and economically conservative independents. The Banks interviews just confirm for these voters that people like them don’t belong with the Liberals.

Morrison’s path to election victory, whatever way you cut it, just got narrower.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 10, 2021 as "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.